Strategies for creating multiple-choice test questions

by Julie Dodd

students taking exam in auditorium

I took this photo from the back of the auditorium, while my 130 students were taking an exam. Photo by Julie Dodd

Which of the following is correct about multiple-choice testing?
(A) Multiple-choice questions are easier to write than essay questions.
(B) If you don’t like multiple-choice tests, you won’t ever have to use them as a teacher.
(C) Multiple-choice tests can measure all student learning objectives.
(D) Students like talking multiple-choice tests better than writing essays.
(E) All of the above.
(F) None of the above.

Those were some of the issues we discussed in Mass Communication Teaching, as we talked about student assessment and multiple-choice testing.

(A) Multiple-choice questions are easier to write than essay questions.
Before class, everyone was to write one multiple-choice question based on Bloom’s Taxonomy (or updated version). Although we agreed that grading multiple-choice tests is faster than grading essays, the class found that writing multiple-choice questions (especially good questions) could take a great deal of time. When asked to consider the amount of time it would take to write 25 or perhaps 50 multiple-choice questions (good questions), the class agreed that the comment that “multiple-choice testing is easy for teachers” wasn’t correct.

(B) If you don’t like multiple-choice tests, you won’t ever have to use them as a teacher.
Most of the graduate students in the class said that they hoped, as teachers, to use other forms of assessment in classes they teach. They preferred individual student writing assignments, group projects, class presentations, and individual projects. But we agreed that sometimes class size can make it impractical to use some of those learning assessments. If you have 150 students in a class, assigning (and then grading) a 10-page paper from each student isn’t feasible based on other teaching demands. So even if multiple-choice testing isn’t ideal, it may be a necessary testing tool. So B isn’t correct.

(C) Multiple-choice tests can measure all student learning objectives.
Everyone in class is developing an undergraduate communications course, complete with syllabus, lesson plans, and assessment tools. A few people in class were going to use a multiple-choice exam or quizzes as part of the student assessment, no one was using only multiple-choice exams for the student grades. Why? They agreed (as research does) that not all student learning outcomes – like writing ability, ability to work in groups, and ability to make presentations — can be best measured by multiple-choice questions. So C isn’t the correct answer.

(D) Students like talking multiple-choice tests better than writing essays.
Not always. The class agreed that they, as students, often preferred other evaluation approaches – group projects or individual research papers. Yes, multiple-choice tests can be favored by some students who like the memorize-and-test approach, but most students wouldn’t want that to be the only assessment approach.

(E) All of the above.
We discussed that research on multiple-choice testing advises NOT to use “all of the above.” If a student can determine that more than one answer is correct, then the answer must be “all of the above.” So that is not always a discriminating question — a question that can discriminate between a student who knows the answer and another student who is guessing the answer.

(F) None of the above.
The answer in this case is “none of the above.” But we discussed that isn’t the best design for a multiple-choice question.

Our discussion also included tips for proctoring an exam and for using an item-analysis to review the results of a machine-scored exam.

Helpful resources on multiple-choice testing include:

How to Prepare Better Multiple-Choice Test Items: Guidelines for University Faculty – Steven J. Burton, Richard R. Sudweeks, Paul F. Merrill, Bud Wood
This paper posted by Brigham Young University Testing Services provides a very helpful explanation of do’s and don’ts, complete with sample questions to illustrate.

Writing Good Multiple Choice Test Questions – Cynthia J. Brame
Posted on Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching

Teaching at the University of Florida 2013-2014 – section on test construction

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